Last week I overdosed on Greta Garbo. At one time I fell asleep while watching one of her films and after waking up I realized I had seen an entirely new film of hers in my dream, made up completely in my own imagination! Of course it was not much different from her other films. She laughed a lot. She cried even more. She died in the end (of course). She wore outlandish but beautiful costumes. She repeatedly sprung her head backwards, exposing her neck (both when too much happy and when too much sad. She never walked in a steady manner or in a straight line. She has to flail left and right with hands in random motion too, as if she were drunk on too much happiness, or much more often, too much grief. And most of all her truly unique accent and deep voice. Despite acting in so many films and spending so much time in hollywood she never mastered the American accent and thank heavens for that!
For a modern audience (I am extrapolating from my own experiences and prejudices) watching Greta Garbo doing all this and more presents a very unusual experience. We are accustomed to look for "character" and "individuality" and instead we are confronted with an "icon" and an "idea" - the idea of "Greta Garbo" (in quotes). Even in her early films her entry is shown and treated as an important event. She can't walk into a frame just like that. She has to be heralded accordingly as befits her status. There is also this whole grandstanding thing, the Diva mode which seems remote to a modern day cinefile (who grew up on neo-realism and similar films... like me). As a viewer then the only thing that remains in these movies is to decipher what this idea of "Greta Garbo" really consists of, what does it entail? For Roland Barthes her face represented "the platonic idea of human creature." In other words perfection itself. I don't find it particularly useful though Barthes is always worth reading and thinking about. More on Garbo from Mythologies here.
One of the most interesting aspects to me about Garbo the Icon is the inherent sexual ambiguity in how her body and in fact her persona is eroticised. Some of her performances will fall under the "camp" category as it is defined now, specially in the context of ambiguity of gender representaion. (This is something valid (in fact even more so) for Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box too.) They are definitely female creatures but the erotic gaze doesn't seem like a conventional male gaze. Or it may just be because their broad-shouldered, mostly two-dimensional body figure feels so remote to the contemporary (predominantly masculine and patriarchal) notions of female beauty, most notably in its totally infantile mammmiferous obsession. The Garbo film that highlights this best is Queen Christina which is also I think her best film overall, that is if one is looking for Garbo in quotes, Garbo the idea. If you are instead looking for just a great film then Ninotchka will fit the bill. Even there, familiarity with the idea of Garbo is required otherwise you will miss a few laughs.
Here are my top 10 favourite Greta Garbo films (that's all I have seen so far):
1. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939): Garbo plays Nina Ivanovna Yakushova aka Ninotchka, a dour and humourless Russian envoy and a very enthusiastic commie whose heart is melted by the all-around wonderfulness of capitalism and Paris. It sounds like a propaganda but in real it cuts both ways. Wilder & Brackett were responsible the screenplay.
2. Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933): Garbo has to choose between her kingdom and her love. One of the most romantic films I have seen in a long time. This is really the essential Garbo film. A must watch.
3. Camille (George Cukor, 1936): This is where she tries the hardest and succeeds most of the time. Too bad, the story is just second-rate sentimental opera. La Traviata was based on the same story by Alexandre Dumas fils.
4. Anna Karenina (Calrence Brown, 1935): Garbo at her most beautiful. Overall ordinary but the last scene will leave you haunting, though still not even near to the book.
5. Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930): Based on a play by Eugene O'Neill. For a change she plays a working class character, actually a reformed hooker, though it is pretty hard to believe her turning a trick. It is still a very entertaining film mostly because of some amazing support from a small supporting cast. She made a German version of the same film too. The print included on the DVD was atrocious but hearing her speak German was a delight. She reportedly preferred the German version herself.
6. Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932): Garbo as Diva - Diva with a capital 'D'. Joan Crawford almost steals the show in this from her.
These three silent films and one last talkie, though mostly ordinary-to-good as standalone films (they are very well-crafted but rather indifferently so) are still very important in the way they helped in the creation of the Iconic image of Garbo. The two spy movies are awesome too.
7. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926)
8. The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo, 1928)
9. The Temptress (Fred Niblo, 1926)
10. Mata Hari (1931)